Inbound marketing for corporate myth-makers and tellers of tall tales.
What you hold in your hand is a one-of-a-kind strategic guide on the power of copywriting, content, and product marketing.
This dusty little tome is filled with wisdom from expert writers, top psychologists, and even a couple ancient philosophers.
It’s over ten-thousand words on why people buy and how to sell. It’ll teach you the skills you need to move hearts and minds through the power of marketing. Follow its instructions and it’ll help you take your business from zero to a hundred in just a couple thousand words.
But, as a wise man once said —
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Advertising, marketing, whatever you want to call it, is neither good nor evil. The pen is not dangerous. Only the hand that holds it.
Our goal as advertisers is to move people away from pain toward happiness.
That’s why I’m leaving out some of the more sinister methods of landing a sale. Things like fear-tactics, pressuring, and even discounting (which works when done well, but can devalue what you're selling in the long run).
What will you do with your power?
At the end of each section, you’ll find an activity.
It’s best you complete these activities because they’re why the lessons will stick. But hey, no one’s forcing you. It’s only your hard earned cash you spent on this tome.
Here’s how it’s going to go down.
First, we’ll explore the psychology of selling.
You’ve got to know your customer and understand why they buy before you start chucking ads their way.
Then we’ll get our hands dirty with copywriting.
You’re going to learn how to write headlines and sentences that have people falling down the page.
Finally, we’ll end with the art of telling a story.
Marketing that tells a story sticks with people. And marketing that sticks with people sells.
Alright. Let’s get to it.
The psychology of selling.
Why do people buy? Who knows…
In Season 1, Episode 1 of the hit TV series Mad Men, Don Draper says this:
”Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”
That’s a great definition of advertising. We’ll go with that.
Plus, it’s backed by science.
We’ve all heard about Maslows’s so-called “hierarchy of needs.”
You know, the theory that once we’re clothed and fed, we can worry about fitting in. Then once we fit in, we can move toward becoming our true selves.
It’s compelling, clear, and neatly packaged. Great advertising Maslow.
We’ve also heard about B.F. Skinner’s concepts of positive and negative reinforcement. Something he liked to call operant conditioning.
Yep you got it. It’s the theory that if you reward your dog when you ring a bell, he’ll come running the next time he hears it. Real obvious stuff.
Eventually Skinner stopped rewarding the dog.
Guess what happened?
The dog kept coming. Skinner had all the power now.
Let’s not manipulate our customers like that, okay?
Here’s the thing. The smell of a new car, freedom from fear, a billboard screaming with reassurance — these are all based on Skinner and Maslow’s theories.
Customers are looking for that split second dopamine rush of happiness. That’s their reward.
As advertisers, we want to move customers to drink from that fountain. And we want them to drink from it often.
The longer we can extend their happiness, the better.
There’s another theory that describes advertising even better.
In her 1942 book Self-Analysis, Karen Horney outlined our often contradictory human needs. What I like about Horney’s theory is that it’s a little more dynamic than the theories pitched by the men in the room.
Horney essentially said that humans have needs for things like self-sufficiency, privacy, independence.
But we also desire their opposites:
The human creature is a mixed bag that doesn’t always make sense.
She came up with three broader categories that described these needs. Lucky for us, we can use these categories to think about our customers.
Here are the types of needs Horney says we all have:
- Needs that move you toward others. Things like affection and acceptance.
- Needs that move you away from others. Privacy and independence for example.
- Needs that move you against others. Power and prestige are at play here.
While Horney largely focuses on negative associations, let’s think about these needs in a positive light. And let’s do it in the context of advertising.
Stick with me.
Love is one hell of a drug.
(Moving toward others, figure #1)
This phrase says nothing about diamonds:
Diamonds are forever.
Sure, diamonds are resilient, long-lasting, and difficult to break. But that’s not what it means, does it?
Someone buys a diamond because they hope that the physical object will symbolize their relationship.
Here, have this little gem. It reminds me of us.
Great, now we’re both happy because we both know that we desire each other forever and always.
This need for love and the little gem I bought you. They move us closer together.
Are you in or are you out?
(Moving toward others, figure #2)
Yes, I’ve seen Stranger Things. It’s great. Now stop asking me.
Okay, fine. Let’s talk about Eleven.
Heck yeah, she’s a badass.
The party’s better now. You’ve got a friend. It’s safe in that bubble. Find a few more to join the conversation and you’ve got yourself a group.
This works with just about anything. Entertainment, cars, tools, and makeup. If you can name it, there’s a club for it.
When you’re in the know, it just feels good.
What’s that buzzing at the doorstep?
(Moving away from others, figure #1)
People are so damn embarrassed about their sexuality.
And yet those little toys that get us you know where are worth something like twenty-three billion dollars (with a B). Maybe more.
Think people would buy them if their neighbors knew?
That’s why companies that make these pocket-sized pleasure machines always advertise that they ship in discreet boxes.
Oh yeah, and they won’t share your data with advertisers either. They respect your privacy.
It’s an intimate and exciting thing. We have a little secret no one knows.
And guess what? They’ll never find out either.
But also… there’s that little chance we’ll get caught. There’s an element of danger.
I don’t need to ask for directions… I’ve got a damn map!
(Moving away from others, figure #2)
Ah, the mark of an independent man. Fumbling with a paper foldout.
Ikea, Lego, and Home Depot lean into the type of person who just wants to DIY.
But this works with adventurous customers too.
Think of all those L.L. Bean ads with the lone hiker at the top of the mountain.
Nobody wants to think they can’t do it on their own.
Our desire to stand alone, to be right, and to go against the grain — it moves us against others but brings us closer to ourselves.
And that fierce independence. Well, that’s a powerful force.
Rebel with a cause.
(Moving against others, figure #1)
I knew them before they were famous. I only use organic ingredients. I don’t watch much TV — I prefer to read.
Going against the grain is just cool.
But it’s also a power trip. It makes people feel like they’re part of a special club of one and that club is better than whatever club you’re in.
Nothing wrong with that.
Roll out the red carpet for Mrs. Jones, please.
(Moving against others, figure #2)
Ever drove a nice car? Wore a fancy watch? Spent hard earned cash on a five-star resort?
Gave you a little rush, didn’t it? You probably told all your friends about it too.
It’s not that you’re better than them, but come on. Who are we kidding?
If you got it, flaunt it.
So what if they call you a show off behind your back.
This is why designer brands exist. Status feels good, despite its costs.
Student Becomes the Master #1
Answer this question: why do your customers buy whatever you’re selling?
Use Karen Horney’s three categories to identify the human need that motivates your customers to buy. Go ahead, write it down.
Aristotle’s 3 modes of persuasion
Aristotle is famous for writing a little book on persuasion called Rhetoric.
In this book he defines three ways to convince people: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos. We’re translating these as Emotion, Reason, and Purpose.
With these tools you can convince people to do anything. A used car sales man, for example, can sell you an old jalopy with sawdust in the oil tank.
But, we’ve got integrity. We’re not Skinner ring the bell without reward.
Let’s explore how we can use Aristotle’s wisdom to help people make good purchasing decisions rather than manipulate them into buying something they don’t want.
We want our customers happy. We want them coming back for more.
Make me feel something, anything at all.
The first mode of persuasion requires a beating heart.
Two bodies tangled between the sheets, men grappling each other’s collars on the edge of a dusty cliff, the smell of cookies baking in the kitchen.
These images play on our red-blooded desires, our fears and ambitions, and those special moments that we’ll never get back.
Emotion captures the magic of the primitive mind. It triggers an automatic response.
I’ve got this need for understanding, man.
The next mode of persuasion is all about the mind.
Nobody wants to feel stupid, like they’ve been taken advantage of or duped.
We all want to understand why we made the purchase. And we want to be able to explain it to someone else.
Especially if we share a bank account with that someone.
Reason is about resolving those deep-seated human fears. It’s about letting the customer reach happiness without anxiety or buyer’s remorse.
I just… I want to be part of something bigger.
The third way to persuade people, says Aristotle, is to play to a customer’s character or virtues.
Sometimes that’s about doing what’s right.
If your company donates a certain portion of profits to charity, your customers might feel good about buying from you. If you recycle too, even better.
But sustainability initiatives play to Ethos just as much as FOMO (“fear of missing out”). Like we said, everyone wants to be in the club.
Being rich is a virtue to some.
Purpose is about making customers feel like their purchase is larger than life. Or at least larger than themselves.
Right time, right place.
Like any good marketer, Aristotle knew the value of a bonus tip.
Lucky for us he mentioned a fourth mode of persuasion too.
This one takes a little more skill than the other three. Kairos is a Greek concept that translates to something like the critical or opportune moment.
There’s an old adage that sums it up perfectly:
“Strike while the iron’s hot.”
But how do you know when the iron’s hot?
Order of operations
What’s the best formula for success?
Open ‘em up with emotion, play to their reason, then tell them they’re in the club?
A friend of mine had a 1991 Land Rover Defender imported from Italy a few years ago. He and another friend, who drives a Toyota Tacoma rigged with a tent on top, started taking camping trips to local state parks.
I was invited on one of these trips.
You better believe that these friends of mine did everything to convince me to join in. They wanted me to get a vehicle built for these kinds of offload adventures myself.
“C’mon, you’re doing well for yourself,” said one, playing to my reason (and whatever vanity I might have).
He just didn’t understand. I’m a modest man — and cheap to boot.
“Wouldn’t it be fun if we all got together and did this more often?” asked the other, trying to make me feel like I’d be missing out.
Not gonna work on me.
I wasn’t really convinced until the friend with the Land Rover said, “Why don’t you take the wheel?”
It brought back a rush of good memories.
I had a 1996 Chevy Blazer in High School. Riding around on country roads with friends, kicking it into four wheel drive in the snow, and blaring music without a care in the world. Ah, the good old days.
It was like being fifteen again.
A couple years later I came across what I was looking for: a 1990 Jeep Wrangler. Dark blue with a hardtop.
My business was doing well at the time, and I had a bit of savings. I worked out a deal with the owner that made us both happy (right time, right place).
The purchase has been validated time and time again.
Kicking up dust on backroads, music blaring without a care (emotion). Every time another Jeep owner gives me the two-finger wave (purpose), I say to myself — I work hard, I do deserve to have a little fun (reason).
Which one of those events sold me on getting an SUV? Or did they all have a hand in convincing me?
Was it the way they were presented (reason - purpose - emotion), or would I have still done it if it happened in some other order?
And if I wasn’t able to justify the purchase, what would’ve happened?
Would I want to leave the club and never come back? Would I ever repeat a purchasing decision like that?
A good buyer is resistant to change.
If you told me the Jeep was a gas guzzler, I wouldn’t have cared.
I would’ve used false logic to justify it (something like, “I’m not hurting the environment — I grow my own garden and don’t eat meat. It all balances out.”).
That’s the perfect sale.
The consumer has a need, a desire, and you provide enough information and opportunity for the customer to sell your solution to themselves.
No one likes a hard sale.
Advertising certainly doesn’t work on me. And yet, here I am.
I don’t usually spend money on thrifty purchases, but I bought the Jeep. My friends’ advertising worked, because it felt like I was making the decision.
So, is there an order of operations to make the perfect sale every time?
To be honest, I don’t know. And does it really matter?
Buyers have their own journeys.
As a marketer, your job is to tell a good story, provide clear information, and give the customer an opportunity to buy.
All this to say, a good marketer lets the buyer do the selling.
Student Becomes the Master #2
Think of a time you bought something. What was the buying process like? What was the order of operations to persuade you?
Write that story down, just like I did above.
The anatomy of a perfect ad
Now that we have a feel for what makes buyers tick, let’s learn a little bit about how they read.
We’ll have to understand some basics about design, but don’t worry. You’ll pick it up in no time.
This is the final piece we need before we jump into the nitty-gritty details about the craft of copywriting.
What the F?
Research shows that a large portion of readers will scan a webpage for relevant information.
The most common form of skimming a webpage ends up looking like an “F.” You skim the headline or first sentence, then jump down a few lines. Then you read the beginning of the next paragraph or headline, then jump down a few more lines.
You’re probably doing it right now.
The problem is, readers will miss important information while scanning.
That’s why we want to make sure we structure the content to fit this pattern. This is true when we’re writing copy for an article, an email, or an ad.
We can grab the reader’s attention by prioritizing points that matter the most.
- Start with interesting and informative headlines
- Write more short paragraphs than long ones
- Start longer paragraphs with shorter sentences
- Include the most useful information in long paragraphs — this rewards readers for reading them
- Get to the point — cut irrelevant information
- Use the active voice
- Improve the readability of your sentences — you can use an app like this one for this
A picture is worth a thousand words.
David Oglivy, the original ad man, said that images should be used in ads the same way newspapers use them in editorial. Like good copy, they should be descriptive, informative, and interesting.
But don’t overdo it. Images don’t need to be scandalous for scandal’s sake. Nor should you mix copy and images like so many trendy designs do these days.
Oglivy’s advice on using photographs and illustrations hasn’t changed much. Images, and by extension moving images like videos and gifs, are still great for grabbing customer attention. They instantly draw the eye and mind.
But remember, words are what convert.
People more than ever are doing their own research. They’re learning everything about your products (and your competitors’) before they make a purchase.
Here’s what Oglivy views as the perfect ad format:
- Lead with a large, interesting, and informative image — if you can show someone using your product, do it
- Craft a large headline that stops your reader in their tracks (more on this later)
- At least 300 words in the body copy — if you don’t believe people read anymore, get out
- End on one hyper-focused note — tell your reader exactly what you want them to do next
Tickle me pink.
I’m not going to go too much into color theory. This isn’t a guide on design after all.
But I do want to touch on it a little because design can color your words and vice versa.
In psychology, and in particular the psychology of selling, colors can convey certain emotions.
Think of biting into an apple for example.
You can feel the crunch of its skin between your teeth. You can taste its sweet juiciness in your mouth as the cold stickiness runs down the palm of your hand.
An apple right off the tree in the heat of summer is best.
It reminds you of being young again, of hot days when a dip in the water is pure heaven. A picnic after and that cool apple ready for your mouth.
The crispness on your front teeth. The break of the skin and smoothness of the flesh. Just heaven.
See what I did?
I didn’t even have to mention red. But I bet you thought of it.
More than that, I bet a few of your senses perked up.
That’s because the color red is intimately tied to an apple. And apples are intimately tied to a little story we all know called Genesis, which is sensual and dangerous and exciting.
And because of that, the color red agitates those emotions within us when we see or think about it.
We can use color in copy the same way we can use it in design. We can use objects and places that have certain color associations to conjure certain feelings within readers.
Coffee companies know this.
That’s why every year they gear up for autumn by offering a little drink called the pumpkin spice latte. They lean into nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves to move more of that magic little bean we all love.
As the leaves are falling and the temperature is dropping and bon fires are being lit, we need something a little extra to warm us up.
In case you haven’t guessed, the color’s orange.
It conveys warmth and positivity.
It also stimulates the appetite.
Here’s a quick list of colors and the emotions they convey. It’s on you to get creative on how to use them in your copy.
- Blue — The color of dependability. Like the sound of ocean waves, it soothes us.
- Green — Growth. Like wind rustling in summer trees, it restores us. Plus, money’s green. You know what I mean?
- Yellow — Pure optimism. This color is full of joy like a California girl sipping on sunshine.
- Orange — We’ve covered this one. It’s all about a sort of primitive comfort. ‘Nuff said.
- Red — Heart-pounding blood-pumping adrenaline-fueled danger is what this color is all about. Love, indulgence, and adventure find their homes here.
- Purple — Like the color itself, this one’s a bit esoteric. It invokes our spiritual and creative sides.
Student Becomes the Master #3
Pick one of your favorite products, brands, or companies and find their blog. Study how they use color, images, and the f-shaped article in their advertising.
Write down four or five ways they could improve.
The craft of copywriting.
Now that you have a deeper understanding of people, how they interact with ads and why they buy, let’s get our hands dirty with the craft of copywriting.
Remember, your goal is to help buyers make good purchasing decisions. We do that by providing them with great information and keeping them interested.
What we want to do is move people further from pain and closure to pleasure so they keep coming back for more.
Titles & headlines
Remember the F-shaped article? Titles and headlines are what keep readers’ eyes falling down the page.
Big and bold designs are good, but it’s the words that matter.
Here, let me show you:
- Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads
- Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content
- Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need
- The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk!
- Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence
- Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
This list accomplishes two things.
First, it shows you exactly what a good title and an accompanying headline should look like. Start with something interesting, intriguing, or exciting as the title.
“Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This” has got you thinking well, who the heck is Whipple and what is he squeezing?
“Save the Cat!” gets your gears in motion. Better not let the poor little fella’ drop out of the cherry tree.
You get the point.
Each title is followed by a subtitle (which is a type of headline). These are generally a bit longer and do a really good job describing what the books are about.
In a nutshell that’s what titles and headlines do. They get your attention, then describe what the following content will be about.
The second thing this list accomplishes is that it acts as a reading list.
These are all great books that will help you along your journey as a corporate myth-maker and teller of tall tales.
I encourage you to pick one or two and start reading them.
Okay, back to headlines.
Headlines and titles are as much an art as they are a science.
I prefer creative titles like the one I used for a recent article: The AI overlords are taking over! It grabs your attention and gets you interested.
There are a couple problems with these types of titles though.
- In a digital space, they don’t tell the algorithms that serve up search results on Google and DuckDuckGo much at all. In fact, they’re horrendous for search engine optimization (SEO). That means you have to do more to promote the piece.
- You need to rely on a very strong subtitle to communicate what the piece is actually about. For the article above, I went with “How Spotify cracked the enigma of music curation and built robots that suggest songs you actually like.”
There are more tried and true types of headlines too.
Take “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” for example. It’s to the point and you know exactly what to expect.
It doesn’t give the reader everything (“what are these laws?”), but it gives just enough to entice them.
Still, the title is clear, clickable, and even uses an old psychology trick. It uses a strange number.
7, 12, 23. These are numbers we see everywhere. Use something like 22, 39, or 73 instead and you stop people in their tracks. That’s because they’re less common.
To drive the point home, here is another list.
9 headline formulas that grab readers’ attention every time.
If you’re unsure about how to write a creative title or headline and you’d prefer to go with something that you know will be clicked, refer to these formulas.
1. The Clickbait
Numbers + Adjective + Target Keyword + Promise
Example: 3 Simple Tips to Manage Your Time Better
Buzzfeed made millions with headlines like these. Maybe you can too?
2. The Double Scoop
Adjective + Adjective + Keyword Phrase + Promise
Example: Tried and True Headline Formulas That Get Readers to Click
Like your favorite ice cream cone, this headline gives readers a little extra on top to whet their appetite.
3. The Tell-All
”The Secret” + Keyword + Promise
Example: The Secret to Creating Content That Converts
Everyone likes to be in the know. Whisper this headline in your readers’ ears for maximum results.
4. The Gossip
*”Little Known Ways…” + Promise + Keyword *
Example: Little Known Ways to Get More Readers
Some readers will think, “I probably already know them.” Others might say to themselves, “Hm… I wonder what he knows that I don’t.” Either way they’ll want to read the rest.
5. The Virtuous Student
“What Every” + Profession/Interest + “Should Know About” + Topic
Example: What Every Copywriter Should Know About Headlines
This headline screams: “If you consider yourself one of these, and haven’t learned this, then you’re probably an amateur.” It speaks directly to people’s egos.
6. The Expert
Number + “Lessons Learned” + Verb + Topic
Example: 27 Lessons Learned from Studying This Year’s Most Popular Super Bowl Ads
Something like this creates an instant connection with your reader and taps into their desire to learn something without doing the work.
7. The DIYer
“How To” + Verb + Keyword Phrase + Promise
Example: How to Create Award-Winning Copy in 6 Easy Steps
These can be modified / mixed-and-matched with the other formulas quite a bit.
8. The Dictator
Command + Topic
Example: Stop Writing So Much
Hit them with a follow up headline like “Do This Instead” to drum up some curiosity.
9. The Big Promise
”The Ultimate Guide” + Topic
Example: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Headlines
Replace with “The Beginner’s Guide” or “The Big List” as needed.
These headline formulas are forever at your disposal.
Refer to them every time you come up empty-handed. Once you get comfortable writing headlines, try to do something a little more creative.
And don’t forget to test different headlines often to get a feel for what your readers’ respond to.
Before you know it, you’ll be a natural at coming up with the right headline every time.
Student Becomes the Master #4
Go to your favorite magazine, newsletter, or publication and pick one of the latest articles. Write 15 alternative headlines for that article using these formulas.
If you’re working on your own article or newsletter, write 15 headlines for it. Pick two or three of your best ones and run an A/B test. Send separate emails or republish the article with a new headline to see how well they do on readers.
Body copy & buttons
Your job as a content and copy writer is to have readers’ eyes falling down the page like a stuntman barreling down Niagara Falls.
Format is important. Remember the F-shaped article?
Varied sentence and paragraph length are what get you that coveted structure.
We’re not writing a third-grade essay. Not every paragraph needs to be five sentences long. In fact, that would be a detriment to your goal.
People are skimming while scrolling. Cater to that fact.
The Amazon were rumored to cut off their right breasts.
Ancient Greek legend has it that the Amazons were a band of roaming warrior women.
They were worshippers of Artemis, goddess of the wild. This means they were hunters. It also means that their skill with the bow was unmatched.
This great skill was only hampered by one thing.
You see, when an archer draws her bow, she draws a clean line with the bowstring from her left forearm to her right shoulder. All the power of the arrow is gained from the release of her right fingertips.
The bowstring, like a rubber band, is pulled back into its normal place and sends the arrow flying to meet its target.
Being women, their right breasts naturally got in the way of this draw and release.
So they did the only logical thing.
When a promising Amazonian archer reached maturity, they lopped off her right breast.
This sentence has five words.
Amazon (the shipping and entertainment mega-conglomerate) lops off their right breast by providing their marketing team with tricks that make writing easy.
Like the headlines formula above, there are also tricks to writing perfect sentences.
A long, long time ago in internet time, Amazon accidentally sent out a templated email to thousands of customers. Oops.
But the email template is a great lesson for writers like us.
Take a look at the advice contained within the template, originally from Gary Provost’s book Make Every Word Count:
"This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music."
Be easy on your readers’ eyes. Give them something they can easily digest before giving them something substantial.
They want to dip their toes before jumping in.
It’s your job to make it possible.
Sing your own kind of music.
Voice is just as important as structure.
Copywriting is a little different than writing an essay in many ways. We can break some of the rules (although you should know them before you break them). We can be more loose and creative with grammar. It’s okay to start a sentence with “and.”
The biggest struggle many writers have is making their words sound interesting on the page.
Here’s a trick...
Write like you talk. Think about how you’d communicate something to a customer or — better yet — a friend. Get it on the page. Then go back and read it out loud. Don’t be embarrassed.
Is it easy to read aloud? Does it flow like a conversation would? If the answer is no, change each sentence until it’s a resounding yes!
Click here, buy me, please, oh god, I’m desperate!
A couple years back I wrote a book.
I had the opportunity to sell this book at the local farmers’ market. People aren’t generally at the market to buy fiction, but they usually do have cash they’re willing to part with.
So, I thought, okay, I’ve got to find a way to connect with these folks.
Whenever someone that seemed the least bit bookish walked by, I looked them in the eye and asked, “Are you a reader?”
Most kept on. But those that deeply considered themselves readers stopped.
“Yes, of course!” they’d say.
“What do you like reading?” I’d ask.
They’d tell me and it was the beginning of a conversation about that book or the genre. Eventually we’d get to my book, but only when I saw an opening to bring it into the conversation.
90% of the time I could close a sale at the end of the conversation.
One time a young couple that looked like they might like a good read walked by. I said my regular bit and was absolutely stunned when the guy said something rude back. I laughed it off and went about my business selling a couple hundred bucks worth of sweet story.
Later that day, the couple swung back around. Here were go, I thought to myself.
Not what I thought.
Apparently the misses wasn’t too pleased with the way her significant other acted. He apologized and she bought a copy of the book. Win-win for me I guess.
I sometimes wonder what my close rate would’ve been if I simply sat at that booth shouting, “Wanna’ buy my book?”
My hypothesis is that it would’ve been dismal.
I wouldn’t probably got a lot more couples giving me shit, and rightfully so.
Instead of making an average of $350 book sales per day, I probably would’ve made less than $30.
Press here for pleasure.
Button copy and calls to action are no different.
Click here, buy now, these command phrases do little to convert readers to buyers. They’re pushy, aggressive, and kind of boring.
Remember how we’re supposed to be driving potential buyers away from pain and toward pleasure?
Spammy buttons don’t do that.
Try this instead.
Try to connect button copy to a theme presented to the reader within the body copy or headline.
This is called anchoring.
Introduce a concept in the headline, mention it again throughout the body text, then when the reader gets to the button and sees a familiar phrase or theme, they’re ready to click.
We all know how buttons and links work. No need to spell it out with tired phrases like “click here.”
Take ConvertKit’s latest landing page, for example.
ConvertKit is an email marketing service for authors, artists, and other creators. They spell that out in the headline. Then they tell this audience what can be done with their solution: share what you love, connect with your followers, and grow your business.
The button under this description says much more than “Sign up for a free account.”
It says, “Launch your next project for free.”
It connects that need to share what you love with your audience with a free account in their software.
It’s fresh, creative, and interesting. It’s also inviting. It makes you want to click because it feels like you’re opening a door that’s been closed too long.
Peer through the veil and see what it’s like on the other side, it beckons.
Gain the secret knowledge that will change everything.
Here’s the magic sword.
This is the mark of a great call to action.
It doesn’t command buyers to do anything. It invites them to take the next step. And it inspires them. It makes them laugh. It shows them a glimpse of what life could be like on the other side.
Buttons are magic doors to another dimension.
That dimension will free your buyers’ of their current pain. Great copy always communicates this.
The best way to become a good writer is to write often.
A lot of diets and exercise programs promise that if you do X for thirty days you’ll achieve some extreme goal.
The problem is to lose 20 pounds in a month takes sacrifices that are borderline self-starvation. Or maybe you have to cut out your favorite foods to get that six-pack you’re after.
But what happens when the program’s over?
You’re likely to gain all the weight back and lose all the muscle.
A better approach to losing weight and gaining muscle is to keep eating what you love but reduce portion size while doing a quick 10-minute workout and a half mile walk around your neighborhood every day.
Small actions lead to big results.
The same is true for writing. Keep a journal, start a blog, write every damn day. Doesn’t matter how good or bad it is.
It’s the only way to improve.
One thing I do to improve my writing is scour the copywriting forum on Reddit for copy review requests. Every so often I go ahead and test my skills by writing copy for the requesters absolutely free.
This person, for example, was struggling with open rates on a product that provided ride share services to employees during the coronavirus pandemic. I suggested a simple subject line and some body copy that might improve things.
This person wanted an old school snake oil salesman ad for some hootch they whipped up for friends and family. He was willing to pay for copy but I thought, “ah, what the heck, I’ve got twenty minutes and nothing better to do.”
And this person was a beginner struggling with copy for one of my favorite products of all time. A pen.
I took mine out and did my best to leave this fella’ with some magic ink.
I left him with some tips too.
Here they are:
- Figure out the ending first — it’ll make the rest easier
- Tell them what you’re selling right up front — business owners get offers for must-have objects all the time, don’t waste their time
- You say it’s made with the finest materials — describe those
- The second you told me to trust you, I lost trust
- Don’t use words like cheap and silly (unless the product is cheap and silly) — paint a picture of power and prestige instead
These aren’t my best works. But I had fun writing them, got some practice in, and hopefully helped someone along the way.
For those getting started with copywriting, this is a great way to get practice and even add pieces to a portfolio. If you're writing in-house, it's a great way to get some practice in and get the creativity going.
Student Becomes the Master #5
Head on over to the marketing or copywriting subreddits and pick a request to write for. Pay special attention to sentence and paragraph variety, and be sure to tie your call to action to the headline and general theme of your body copy.
Share the final piece with the forum or simply keep it for yourself. If you’re not feeling social, you could always write an ad for a product you love instead.
Getting out the words
Writing isn’t hard, but it’s not easy either.
Coming up with topics, getting the words on the page, and writing something interesting are the most common challenges I hear from writers of all shapes and stripes.
I go through my own periods of writers’ block.
Once upon a time I struggled coming up with topics for Above the Fold. I wasn’t writing regularly for the newsletter and every time I came up with a topic it felt uninteresting and uninspired.
The few times I was successful in writing something new, I ended up with a listicle or vague advice that I couldn’t be proud of.
I solved the problem by creating some structure around my writing.
I decided that every week I’d write three articles instead of one. The first article would be a case study about a company doing interesting things with their marketing. The second would analyze an ad I could include in my swipe file. The third article was expert advice from a book I’d read or video I’d watched.
Each one of these articles would inform and inspire the others.
It worked like a charm.
I now average 2,000 words per week over three articles on Above the Fold. I also send a custom newsletter nearly every single week.
Not to mention my client work.
But that’s easy — the customer gives me all the content.
Creativity with limits.
Architects must work in the confines of the laws of physics no matter how unique their designs. The craftsmen who cobble these buildings together use scaffolding to make the design come together.
Many writers are of the false assumption that creativity is hampered by limits.
But that’s just not the case.
Once you impose limitations on your writing, you’ll find a world of freedom within them.
An easy way to come up with topics is to think about what your customers are struggling with. What questions do they ask over and over? Are there certain customer stories that you tell to win the sale time and again?
Student Becomes the Master #6
Write down 12 questions your customers’ ask on a regular basis. Commit to writing one article per week simply answering this question in a conversational tone. Put an hour or two of writing time in your schedule each week for the next twelve weeks. Do it now.
Now you have weekly articles for the next three months and time on your calendar to get them written. You’re welcome.
The art of story.
Telling a story is just as important as getting the words right.
I’ve told many stories throughout this guide. But I’m not going to necessarily teach you how to tell those kind of stories.
Instead, we’ll focus on telling your business stories.
How do we take that list of customer questions from our last lesson and turn it into content that sells? How do we structure and present our content in a way that drives action? And how do we find new prospects using that content?
At the end of the day we want to increase leads and sales through our stories.
Though many think of story as a mushy, intangible thing, there are formats, templates, and structures we can use to communicate the stories we tell about our products and services and the journey a potential customer takes to get to the point where they buy in.
That’s what the final section of this guide is about.
You’ll walk away with the methods and structure to create intriguing content that drives sales.
Every beautiful building is built with scaffolding. This is the scaffolding you’ll use to tell stories that move hearts and minds and take your company from zero to a hundred in just a couple thousand words.
The main character
When Odysseus landed on Aeaea, he had no clue he’d spend a year there.
But the witch Circe did her best to give Odysseus all the comforts of home. He no longer had the drive to return to Ithaca, to his own wife and son.
We’ve all felt like this, haven’t we?
Complacent with our lives, mired in comfort, unwilling to take forward action because life is so good right now.
If not for a restless crew, the drunken folly of a broken-necked mate, and the key to the underworld, Odysseus might have forever stayed on that island. He had forgotten what drove him.
The beginning of every adventure starts this way.
In his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, anthropologist Joseph Campbell described this beginning as a call to action which sets in motion the hero’s journey. It’s a common storytelling structure in the world’s most famous myths and legends.
It observes that the main character — the hero of the story — is always confronted with a problem, must find tools and resources to overcome that problem, and then is rewarded handsomely for their work in resolving the conflict.
A lot of businesses place themselves and their products as the center of attention in their marketing.
That’s a big mistake.
You see, it’s our customers who are the true heroes of our marketing stories.
They are out on Aeaea, comfortably ignoring the way forward. They’ve become complacent to do things the way they’ve always done them.
But there will be a fateful day when that all changes.
At some point the problem they’re facing will become too big to ignore, and they will set out to find their way to its solution.
And there you are…
Your product or service the answer to all their problems.
Discovering your heroes.
How do mythological gods discover legendary heroes like Odysseus? Do you think they simply know?
I imagine it’s more like the scene in Beetlejuice when The Maitlands enter the netherworld. There they find something like the motor vehicle administration. A complex bureaucracy that identifies and assists the recently deceased.
Can’t you picture the gods sitting around Olympus, creating profiles of people and then trying to identify who the next hero will be?
“This one looks promising,” says Athena. “I’ll take him.”
How many would-be heroes did she assist before landing on Odysseus?
We call the Odysseus-level clients whales in the business world. They’re the big accounts that take little effort.
But you have to know what you’re going after before beginning the pursuit.
Creating customer personas.
There’s a software company that creates products for meeting and event planners. Not just any meeting and event planners — specifically planners of large conferences and trade shows.
The sales cycle is a long one. It takes six to eighteen months to close a deal.
They dig into their customer list and realize there are four archetypes that describe the ideal customer:
- Debbie Do-Everything, who juggles many different responsibilities on a very small team.
- Patty Plans, who is responsible for schedules and staff.
- Sally Sells, who manages booths and sponsorships for the trade show.
- Teresa Teaches, who is in charge of content and speakers.
There are others too — the financial team, IT team, and executives — but these four are the primary users of the software and have a very large stake in which product the organization uses.
The reason we give these archetypes names is because it is important to place a name with a face.
When we begin writing content and copy for different campaigns, it’s good to know who we’re talking to. Having these personas defined is an easy way to identify the hero we’re guiding with our content. We can attribute specific pain points to these archetypes, and speak clearly and directly to those to increase our conversions and sales.
Student Becomes the Master #7
Identify your top 2-3 customer archetypes. Give these ideal customers names and list their pain points.
What motivates them to take action? What holds them back? Who do they have to convince once they’ve identified a solution?
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.
There are trials and tribulations the main character must go through. These are what transforms the character’s mundane existence into something extraordinary.
It’s how legends are made.
The hero’s journey.
When a customer finally heed the call, they begin the customer’s journey.
You, my friend, are not Odysseus. No, you are Athena disguised as the poor beggar Mentor.
You are there to guide the hero to their destiny.
It is your job to set the hero — your potential customer — down the right path so that their end their journey with your solution in hand, conquering whatever dragon they must face.
This journey is best described by the sales funnel.
The sales funnel is a nice little chart that describes how someone goes from knowing they have a problem, to educating themselves on potential solutions, to finally reaching out to you as an answer.
At the top of the funnel, a user may not be ready to take action.
Their problem has become bad enough that they’re looking for solutions, but they don’t want to be bothered by sales people selling products and services. They have it in their own agency to figure things out.
Share free content on your blog and social media. Educate them on how others have solved a similar problem. Show them what life could be like on the other side.
Give them time too. Eventually they’ll raise their hand and say, “I want to know more.”
This is where you can get them to subscribe to your newsletter or download a resource. This qualifies them as a buyer for you, but it also takes them one more step down the path to becoming a customer.
Don’t get overeager just yet.
Let them explore a little more. Keep serving them educational content, but be a little more direct. Ask them to schedule a call or jump on a demo. Present your product for purchase.
But also be patient. They’ll come to you when they’re ready.
When they do, it’s time to close the deal. Put them on email automations with good, old-fashioned direct sales copywriting. Create focused messaging that inspires them to take whatever action leads to a sale.
We’re nearing the bottom of the funnel now.
Once the prospect becomes a buyer, the journey isn’t over. Now it’s time to upsell them additional products and services, and make sure the customer experience is great enough to warrant repeat purchases, and ultimately word of mouth recommendations.
A - I - D - A
Each stage of the sales funnel can be broken out into its own smaller funnel.
At the top of the funnel, you’re simply trying to get customers to learn more about your solution and qualify themselves as prospective customers. Mid-funnel, your job is to further qualify these potential customers by delivering more content and being more direct in your calls to action. Finally, at the bottom of the funnel, a prospective buyer makes a purchase.
The question is, how do we move them from one stage to the next?
That’s where the AIDA model comes in.
AIDA stands for Attention - Interest - Desire - Action.
The idea is that you must gain a potential customer’s attention, hold their interest, rouse a desire for your solution, and then get them to take action.
Simple, yet effective.
It was a model developed in 1898 by an advertiser named St Elmo Lewis. Lewis used AIDA to describe the process required for a salesperson to lead a customer to a sale.
AIDA is a way to understand how to structure long, multi-channel campaigns and smaller marketing assets like a single blog post or email.
Take for example a science-fiction author who wants to sell more books.
She has three series total. One has seven books, the next is a trilogy, and the final series has one book published with three more planned. In a world where thousands of books are published on a daily basis, she must stand out to readers.
A way to do this might be to give the first book in her first series away for free.
The landing page used to do this uses AIDA to make the case:
- “Hey reader, you’re a big fan of this specific genre of sci fi, right?” (attention)
- “Cool, this series is like the most perfect form of that genre ever written and here are the reasons why.” (interest)
- “Guess what? The first book is free so you don’t even have to invest anything but your time to try it.” (desire)
- “So go ahead and give it a download!” (action)
That book becomes a piece of marketing itself. The action at the end is to purchase the next book in the series for $0.99.
This continues and the price for each subsequent book increases. Once a reader finishes one series, they’re presented with the option to continue their customer journey by trying one of the other series.
The lifetime value of an ideal customer, then, is upwards of a hundred bucks. If the author adds merchandise and supplemental media to the mix, the potential lifetime sales could be in the thousands for just one customer.
At the top of the funnel, the goal is for the author to use AIDA to simply get a reader to give her free book a try. It’s a way to stand out from the thousands of other books out there (attention).
Once a reader gets through that book (because the author held their interest), the process starts again. This time she’s trying to get a reader to make their first purchase with her (desire). Here, we’ve reached the bottom of the funnel where a reader decides to buy the next book or move on (action).
Now, once they read this second book – the one they’ve bought – the goal is to use AIDA again to upsell them the next in the series, this time at a higher price.
The process goes on and on until our author runs out of things to sell. And at every stage of purchase, she uses AIDA to convince the reader that hers are the books to buy.
The sales funnel is a linear path for one customer type. But we’ve already determined you may have multiple customer types. And the path to becoming a customer is often messier than a clear-cut path in the woods.
I like to think of content like a playground — or better yet, a theme park.
When you walk into Disney Land, what is the first thing you see?
Right. The castle.
As you walk toward it, there are many things to distract you along the way. You can stop and shop, grab a bite to eat, ride a rollercoaster, or do any number of things. The journey, though, always ends at that castle.
Or does it?
When you get to the castle, you learn there’s more to do. You look left and see a giant mountain. You look right and see what looks to be a space station.
After you complete the total journey, you’re ready to do it all over again to remind yourself what you experienced and maybe discover something you missed last time.
Choose your own adventure
This is an old concept called the tentpole.
It was used by people like P. T. Barnum at the turn of the twentieth century to keep carnivals and circuses interesting for attendees. It uses the AIDA model expertly but also presents customers with lots of choice along the way to the tentpole, or that central location that stands out as the ultimate destination.
Disney used this expertly in planning Disney Land and Disney World. They’ve since applied it to their digital content marketing strategy.
Every Disney brand is a tentpole asset. Customers can engage with content brands and products in various ways and discover new ones along the way.
They are always the heroes of their own journey.
This idea of the tentpole is often referred to as the hub-and-spoke model by modern marketers.
All roads lead to Oz.
Let’s return to the sales funnel and the software company with the four customer archetypes. For each persona, this company could create a customer journey that looks something like this:
- Top of Funnel — Gain attention with a funny video that pokes fun at a common pain point.
- Mid-Funnel — Keep interest by presenting prospective clients with a guide or checklist that conceptually solves the problem presented in the video.
- Bottom of the Funnel — Generate desire in your solution by showing how your product or service puts the conceptual solution into practice through something like a landing page.
At this point, they heed the call to action and take the next step. In this case, they get a demo of the software and begin the sales process.
But at each stage of the funnel, they are presented with many options. The video, the guide, and the landing page are simply the tentpoles. There may be other resources, blog posts, videos, and so on that relate to each one of these assets.
What’s your source of truth?
Pick one channel that you can build a content hub around.
Above the Fold, for example, is my source of truth. Every week I write about three blog posts that I then promote on on my other channels.
It’s important to limit the channels you’re promoting on. Mine are Twitter, LinkedIn, and Email. I also republish articles to Medium and promote out on a few other places.
But these channels are just icing on the cake.
My only goal is to write and publish three articles per week. If that’s done, I consider it a success.
Maybe your source of truth is Facebook. You create content for that platform then repurpose it for your blog and email list. Or maybe you pick it apart and create a few Instagram or Snapchat posts with it.
Maybe you’re more of a talker, so YouTube is your source of truth.
It doesn’t matter.
What’s important is that you pick one platform that you’re active on and know how to use to use as your content platform. You’ll use this to tell your story over the long term. It will be the way you connect with customers.
Reduce, reuse, recycle.
We all know the drill. Three simple steps make the world a better place.
This is true for marketing too.
Figure out what questions your customers have and find the easiest way to answer them. Take that answer and repurpose it in as many formats as possible. Then put it on as many channels as possible.
Say you’re doing a case study on how a recent customer used your product or service to achieve her goals.
Go ahead, write the big long article. Then take the article and make a little tip sheet or infographic. Share it with journalists. Maybe you have some tips that relate to the case study. Share them on Twitter over the next couple weeks.
Pick apart the content as much as you can and figure out how to make it feel native on every channel you and your customers use.
Master this on 2-3 main platforms before adding another.
Student Becomes the Master #8
Map out the customer journey using the personas you defined last time. Now create a three-stage funnel for each one.
What type of content could act as a tentpole for each stage? What are the spokes around these hubs? What channel will be your source of truth and what supplemental channels will you use? Put it all on paper.
Kurt Vonnegut, a very apt storyteller, said that every story is about a character who gets in trouble and then tries to get out of it.
This is as true in marketing as it is in novels.
Like Odysseus, potential customers are often are woken from that comfortable life they were living when a crew mate drunkenly stumbles off the roof and breaks his neck. It’s a rude awakening from the slumber of a comfortable life.
Maybe they miss a deadline or that band-aided process finally grinds everything to a halt. Doesn’t matter. The call is there and they must defeat the evil villain that has got them in a bind.
The 4 types of conflict
The Greeks defined four types of conflict in tragedy.
These have been adapted and used to describe narrative in general throughout history. They’re as useful for telling tall tales and mythic legends in marketing as they are for novelists and playwrights.
Here they are:
- Man against man — This is when two characters are at each other’s throats. Romance and family sagas feature this type of conflict.
- Man against nature — This is when a character is fighting the elements. Good ol’ Tom Hanks and his little friend Wilson know all about this.
- Man against self — This is an internal struggle between the character and her own thoughts and feelings. Zero to hero stories are all about this.
- Man against society — This is when a character stands up against an established institution. Dystopian fiction and those that feature fights against injustice focus on this.
Now let’s see how they fight into the customer’s journey…
1. They just won’t do what they’re asked…
Remember that software company we talked about earlier? The one that sells management software to conference and trade show organizers?
Well, part of the Teresa Teaches persona’s responsibilities is collecting content from conference speakers.
The issue is that these speakers don’t always submit content on time.
Often they forgot, or get side-tracked, or busy, or they’re simply lazy and don’t get the materials in on time.
They are the villain of Teresa’s the story.
If it weren’t for these damn unresponsive speakers, her job would be smooth sailing.
2. What an uncontrollable inconvenience!
Look to raincoats or camping gear for great examples of the customer against nature.
Food is another one. Quench your thirst, fill your hunger.
Nature is inconvenient and comes up when we least expect it. Better be prepared.
3. If only I were a little bit better…
When you decided to purchase this guide, you probably cast yourself as the villain.
If only I could move hearts and minds with the power of words…
People are always looking to better themselves.
Speak directly to that desire, and show them the way forward.
4. Time for a revolution!
This last type of conflict — the customer against society — is what Apple banked on when they ran their Think Different campaigns.
It recognizes the problems with the status quo, and shows the customer how they can rebel against it through your product or service.
IBM and the mainstream PCs were the villain of Apple’s story. Their product was for the dreamers, the doers, the creators.
It was a rebellion against the old ways of stuffy business suits.
One last thing…
I want to leave you with one final tool I use to tell customer stories.
It’s another formula.
Whether I’m writing a case study, a landing page, or an email, I try to break down the content like this:
Problem - Solution - Outcome
- What is the problem my audience is trying to solve?
- What is the solution best suited for them?
- What is the outcome — the results they can expect?
In every piece you write, every campaign you create, think about how you can communicate the answers to these questions in a clear and concise narrative.
Student Becomes the Master #9
What’s the main villain of your customers’ journey. Which of the four conflicts best describes their main pain point?
Interview a few customers who have successfully solved this problem with your product or service. In their own words, what were the results of working with you?
Get out there and make some legends.
Whether you use this guide to sell your own product or services or help others’ make myths and tell tall tales — I want you to remember one thing.
Everything in this guide is a tool. And tools can be used to build houses or tear them down…
One last story — for the road.
There was a marketing man by the name of Edward Bernays, who would go on to be called the “Father of Public Relations.” He was the nephew of the one and only Sigmund Freud.
Bernays main question was how can we use the humanity’s irrational emotions, largely described by his Uncle Freud, to increase profits and sell more goods to the masses?
One of his earliest campaigns under this new moniker was for one of the vilest of all products.
George Helme, president of the American Tobacco Corporation, reached out to Bernays with a problem.
Cigarettes at the time were very popular amongst men.
But Helme knew that to grow sales he had to break into a new demographic. He knew that he had to get women to smoke.
Bernays reached out to A. A. Brill, one of first psychoanalysts in America. Brill said that cigarettes were phallic, that they represented raw masculinity and male sexual power. Brill said that, to women, cigarettes may be unpopular because they were a symbol of oppression and male dominance.
So Bernays did what any self-respecting psychoanalyst would do.
He sought to free women from this burden.
Torches of freedom.
Brill told Bernays that if he could spin cigarettes as a challenge against male power, then women would smoke.
What came next was a media event that would manipulate the masses on a scale never seen before in advertising and marketing.
Bernays organized a group of prestigious models to smuggle in cigarettes to New York’s annual Easter parade. When given the signal, they were to light up and puff away in front of all to see.
Meanwhile, Bernays informed the press that he had heard that a group of women suffragettes were planning a protest that would involve “lighting up torches of freedom.”
It went off without a hitch.
The press got their juicy gossip and prize photographs and American Tobacco Corp. got their smokers.
The only one to suffer in this deal?
The American public. Especially women, whose chances to develop lung cancer would surpass that of breast cancer by 1987.
With great power comes great responsibility.
You grew up with processed food, you use bar soap on a regular basis, and you’ve drank out of disposable cups in large part due to his campaigns.
Bernays’ methods were used to start wars and win political offices. And they’re still being used today.
Now that you have access to the psychology, copywriting, and storytelling tools described and used by Bernays and the others mentioned in this guide, what will you do with them?
The tools themselves come with no morality attached. A hammer can be used to build a house or tear it down.
I say, let’s build more houses.
If you need an extra hand, you know where to find me.
Student Becomes the Master #10
Now that you’re a market myth-maker, what questions do you still have that this guide didn’t answer?